COUNCIL BLUFFS — Iowa roads officials may put the brakes on red-light cameras posted at some of this city's busiest intersections.
A proposal by the Iowa Department of Transportation would impose new limits on the use of red-light and speed-enforcement cameras in Iowa cities. The unmanned cameras now produce more than 200,000 tickets and $13 million in fines annually, or more than $4 per Iowa resident.
The cameras have created a backlash over civil liberties and become an issue for the Iowa Republican Party, with some complaining of out-of-control government.
With the support of Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, the Iowa Department of Transportation has proposed new rules that would allow the cameras mostly as short-term fixes for specific traffic problems.
“We want to make sure that other things are considered and implemented,” said Steve Gent, director of traffic and safety for the department. “Because, let's face it, cameras are very intrusive.”
But officials in many of the cities that use the cameras, including Council Bluffs and Sioux City, oppose the proposal, calling it an attempt to take the cameras away. They regard the cameras as important traffic safety tools and say the state is interfering in a local matter.
“Decisions like these are best left to the local governments, because I have to walk down Main Street and have people complain to me, and they don't,” said Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott.
The rules would allow municipalities to seek permission to use speed and red-light cameras only after other “engineering and enforcement solutions” have been tried. Cities would have to show that the cameras target “documented high-crash or high-risk locations,” and they would be required to justify their renewal every year.
If a legislative committee gives its approval, the limits could go into effect as early as February. The rules would apply to state and federal highways in the cities, including Interstates, where the majority of the cameras are used.
Gent said the amount of money local governments raise from the tickets is one of the concerns.
Council Bluffs uses only red-light cameras, while Sioux City uses red-light and speed cameras. Other cities, including Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, also use cameras.
Speed cameras are more lucrative; the two placed in a construction zone on Interstate 29 in Sioux City brought in more than $4.5 million for the fiscal year ending in June. Council Bluffs received $715,186 during the same period, according to data submitted to the department by both cities.
“These things generate a lot of money, so we have a lot of people out there that are saying 'Wait a sec — that just doesn't seem right,' ” Gent said.
Council Bluffs and Sioux City officials say the cameras were put in place to solve specific traffic safety problems: red-light running in Council Bluffs and speeding through the Interstate construction zone in Sioux City.
Critics have raised privacy concerns, but Council Bluffs police say there is no expectation of privacy on a public street — and there is an expectation for motorists to obey traffic laws.
“Traffic safety — that's what this boils down to,” said Council Bluffs Police Sgt. Jason Bailey. “This is not an invasion of privacy.”
An attempt to put limits on the cameras died in the Iowa Legislature earlier this year. The proposed change would be administrative and would not require action by the Legislature.
In Nebraska, speed and red-light cameras are not allowed.
Council Bluffs acquired seven fixed cameras in 2005 and added six more in 2009. Many of them are installed on West Broadway, between downtown and Interstate 29.
According to city data, crashes have declined by 57 percent at the intersections where cameras were installed in 2005, and by 25 percent at the intersections where the devices were added in 2009.
“These cameras have really done what they are supposed to do,” said Tom Hanafan, Council Bluffs mayor until January.
The Bluffs cameras utilize sensors embedded in the street. As the light turns yellow, the system senses when a vehicle is approaching at a speed too fast to stop, and the camera photographs the vehicle. A police officer reviews the images to make sure a case is solid before a ticket is sent to the vehicle owner.
The owner is responsible for the $100 fine, regardless of who was driving.
“This is treated similarly to a parking ticket,” said Greg Reeder, director of public works for Council Bluffs. “Your insurance company isn't notified. … It doesn't go on your permanent record.”
The cameras get mixed reviews from the public. Many don't like them, but there's also a sentiment that motorists should not run red lights.
Cathy Halder, 42, of Missouri Valley, Iowa, said she's glad Council Bluffs has red-light cameras but thinks the city may have too many. She does not want the cameras to go away, but thinks more state oversight might be appropriate.
“If you know where they are ... you pay attention at lights better,” Halder said as she stopped for gas Thursday morning at a gas station on Broadway.
Ed Beall, 43, of Atlantic, Iowa, doesn't like the cameras, and he doesn't think the lights stay yellow long enough. “I really think (the cameras) need to go,” he said.
Council Bluffs uses proceeds from its cameras to make public-safety related purchases, such as new police cruisers. In Sioux City, the revenue has been used to reduce property taxes.
Gent said the goal is not necessarily to eliminate the cameras, but he can't guarantee that Council Bluffs and other cities would be able to keep them.
“The department is looking to be a check and balance … (to) provide some sort of level of oversight,” he said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.